By Cameron Kaercher
Aaron Sorkin’s first screen writing credit was for an adaptation of his own Broadway play, “A Few Good Men.” The four-time Oscar-nominated court procedural starred Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson. The film is best remembered for the argument that takes place between Cruise and Nicholson where the latter shouts, “You can’t handle the truth.”
In 2020, Sorkin handles a true story as a writer and director.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” tells the story of the seven people who were accused of starting and exacerbating the riots around the Democratic National Convention in 1968, held in Chicago.
The defendants are a diverse group of people. Tom Hayden, played by Eddie Redmayne, was the leader of the Students for a Democratic Society. Abbie Hoffman, played by Sacha Baron Cohen, and Jerry Rubin, played by Jeremy Strong, were the leaders of the Youth International Party. All of them had to stand trial against the prejudiced Judge Julius Hoffman, played by Frank Langella.
It’s a big cast, especially one that allows each player room to provide their own personal stamp to the ensemble. Baron Cohen leaves behind his “Borat” character and plays a more articulate, anti-government protester who still has some humor in him. Mark Rylance plays the defense lawyer with a similar formality to his Oscar-winning supporting performance in 2015’s “Bridge of Spies.” Yahya Abdul-Mateen II gives an understated yet fiery performance as Bobby Seale, a defendant who was denied his own attorney multiple times during the trial.
This cast is a lock for this year’s SAG Award for Best Ensemble Cast in a Motion Picture, which could lead to strong Oscar buzz as “Parasite” took the award last year.
Sorkin’s screenplay for the film is also a strong contender for Best Adapted Screenplay this year. While the actors should be commended for their work, it wasn’t all improvised. Sorkin’s dialogue is as sharp as ever. All of the characters feel like the smartest people in the world, with comebacks that flow with precision and speed. Being a previous nominee for his screenwriting work on “Moneyball,” “Molly’s Game,” and winning for “The Social Network” also does not hurt his chances.
The writing is also bolstered by the razor-sharp editing by Alan Baumgarten. With a runtime well over two hours, there is little to no dead weight. It is able to set up the defendants, show the violence that surrounded the protests, and the four-month-long trial itself.
Sorkin plays around with the chronology by interspersing the event in question and the questioning that takes place during the trial. In this way, it is able to play with the issue that some of the defendants might be unreliable narrators as what they say is an exaggeration of what took place. Sorkin is then able to cross-examine the characters themselves with his structure.
Sorkin’s direction of the protests that led to violence after clashing with the National Guard is realistic and earns the R rating. Cinematically speaking, it is evocative of Ava Duvernay’s “Selma” and the similar peaceful protests that also turned violent after interacting with the police. More importantly, it reminds the viewer of the powerful protests against police brutality we all saw on TV and on social media over the summer.
While the film was shot before the pandemic and there are never any explicit connections established between this moment in history and the modern-day, it is impossible to not think about that connection. In a profile with GQ magazine, Sorkin said:
“I wasn’t changing anything to reflect the world. The world was changing to reflect the screenplay.”
If Spike Lee were to direct this script, that connection would be guaranteed and very explicit. In some ways, being hyper-focused on just this story and time period opens up the door for the viewer to make these connections on their own. While both styles are totally valid, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is focused and effective. It may not be breaking the mold of filmmaking, but it fits it quite well.